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Survivor: anger was Georgi Saraivanov's rocket fuel during nine years of hell.

Georgi Saraivanov likes to talk. You sense he needs to "connect" as much as possible after spending a total of nine years and three months in prison for "crimes" against Bulgaria's communist authorities.

If sometimes he talks non-stop he admits with a laugh that his ex-wife used to berate him for this then, of all people, he's entitled.

When Saraivanov was finally released from almost a decade in jail he made several failed attempts to escape Bulgaria. He finally succeeded on his fifth attempt. He then spent 24 years in Germany, returning to Bulgaria after the changes with no great enthusiasm it has to be said only in 1996.

His incarceration began in 1953 when he was just 22. He was detained at the investigative department of State Security and sentenced to death three times on different charges. He was also given 20 years on a fourth charge. Saraivanov spent seven months in prison, chained, awaiting execution. In 1955, his death sentence was com-muted to 20 years' imprisonment.

What had he done? Saraivanov quickly re-minds you that to ask this is nonsensical. It's the same question an innocent might ask of Nelson Mandela. He will only say he was a member of a counter-revolutionary organisation. He insists he was never a fascist. "It was anticommunist more than profascist but it's true that it was considered as a fascist youth organisation at the time."


He is very proud of his old warriors-in-arms. "None of these people sold themselves and became informers," he says.

To say his experience in jail was "shattering" would be an understatement. He says the pain of being in chains was indescribable. His warders' sadism was so gratuitous that when I call them "bastards", he says my description is a "euphemism".

Yet Saraivanov survived and says he never contemplated suicide. Now a grand old man of 80, he has a ready chuckle; he treasures every encounter and clasps my hand tightly at the beginning and end of our interview. He looks younger than his age despite his hellish ordeal and a smoking habit. His only physical disability is a slightly rolling gait.


Georgi likes to talk, but on his own terms. He will answer a question, about his attitude to "forgiveness" for example, with a hard anecdote, a recollection of intense physical pain or fear. He stares straight ahead when recalling it. Then he will glance back at me. The implication is clear. Theoretical questions are left to the panel of experts downstairs. He can talk of pain, fear and survival but abstract concepts are harder for him to articulate.

Those who assume he would rather "forget" the past are, of course, monumentally mistaken. Catharsis comes from remembrance.

Just as concentration camp survivors sometimes re-visit the site of their hell, Georgi derives strength when he contemplates what he escaped from. A pair of real prison chains hangs from the ceiling at his home in Sofia, a continuous reminder of his incarceration and also his pleasure at freedom. It concentrates his mind and makes him grateful for the present.

He invites me to his home to see the chain. "Now, anybody who wants to see an original communist chain accompanied by a letter saying I did not steal it can do so. When I get agitated about something, the sight of the chain gives me a different perspective on things," he says.


For Georgi, words such as "reconciliation" and "forgiveness" are just platitudes. He is still very angry towards his captors and says were he to meet them again unlikely, of course his words would be unrepeatable. Then he sighs and says he's not sure if he would have the strength to say what he really feels. Were there witnesses present, he would say nothing anyway. He says that he could be taken to the European Court for verbally abusing his tormentors.

"Anger kept us going," he says. "We even wanted an atomic bomb to fall on Sofia be-cause you go a little bit mad in the circum-stances. Even if we had been given steaks and caviar all the time this wouldn't have been as much fuel to us as the idea of revenge. From the moment you enter the prison, until the moment you leave, you are consumed by anger. If you think about it, when somebody jumps the queue at a petrol station, you can get angry over something that is really relatively insignificant. You want to physically hurt them. Maybe if I'd had been convicted of murder and I was guilty I would have accepted it, but when everything was insinuated and staged, and nothing was real from beginning to end, it's like a wound that's infected and gets bigger and bigger."

Sariavanov says it's impossible for people ever to grasp what he went through. If he could get "understanding" in the most literal meaning of the word not compassion, then that would be a breakthrough.


Georgi was kept in a tiny cell, 1.95m by 3.20m, with three other inmates. During his early incarceration, when he was on death row, other prisoners were executed between 11pm and midnight. If the door was flung open at that time and his name read out, then he knew he would die. When he was alone in his cell, his jailers enjoyed taunting him. The guard would open his cell door near the execution hour, call Saraivanov "a piece of filth" and then fail to close the door behind. This made Georgi think that he was about to be executed. Then, 15 to 20 minutes later, the guard would come in and laugh, ask him if he'd been scared and then lock the door. Yes, it occurs to the interviewer, justice and reconciliation are indeed very easy words...

The pain in his muscles, feet and bones, was, he says, overwhelming. When he thought execution was imminent he would feel sad about what he would never know the joy of marriage and fatherhood. It's no coincidence, he says, that, before execution, prisoners would do half of what is necessary to create a child.

In those early days of communism, Saraivanov says, people lived in a state of persistent paranoia.

"You had to be aware of what you're saying, thinking and dreaming. The fear of death is the strongest way to keep a whole nation under control."


Even now, he says, 22 years after the fall of communism, there are still people reluctant to speak too openly on the phone. Fear, he says, takes its toll.

When Saraivanov had his death sentence commuted and his chains removed the authorities thought he would be grateful. His only thought, however, once he was finally released from jail, was to flee Bulgaria. When he eventually succeeded along with his wife he spent more than two decades abroad.

"My wife came back first with my eldest son. Then, six months later, I came back. I didn't really want to. My mother, father and two closest friends had passed away."

He has received a little money from the state but, as he says, nothing could compensate him. Were those years "wasted"? He admits he made good friends inside, although most of them are now gone.

Sariavanov says that he always had four wishes.

"The first was to marry and have children. I never wanted to be rich or clever, like Einstein, or physically strong. The second was that an American should be the first man on the moon. The third was to escape from Bulgaria."

All three were fulfilled. His fourth wish, that "communism and Bolshevism only be found in books" is the only one that has so far been elusive.

When I leave, shell-shocked by man's in-humanity to man, I console myself with the Gandhi dictum.

"When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers and for a time they seem invincible but in the end, they always fall."

And when Georgi Saraivanov despairs, he just looks at his chain and thanks his blessings for the here and now.
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Title Annotation:reading room
Author:Hershman, Gabriel
Publication:The Sofia Echo (Sofia, Bulgaria)
Geographic Code:4EXBU
Date:Dec 9, 2011
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